Government to ban niqab at schools and universities

University and student leaders have voiced opposition to a government proposal, announced on 12 June, to outlaw the covering of the face in learning institutions, from kindergarten to universities.

Newspapers quickly labelled the proposal as “the niqab legislation”, but the proposal, outlined in a 60-page consultation document, includes “all types of clothing that cover the face wholly or in parts”, with exceptions for clothing that is used as protection against cold temperatures.

The Acting Minister of Immigration and Integration Per Sandberg said that the niqab represents values alien to Norwegian society and contributes to suppressing women. He said using a niqab is a hindrance for communication. “This is forced upon people by values that do not correspond to Norwegian values,” Sandberg said.

But in a press release, Marianne K Andenæs, head of the National Union of Students in Norway or NSO, said the proposed law would violate equal rights to education, and the rights of people who make “personal choices that the politicians have difficulties understanding or do not like”.

She said: “If clothing covering the face is not a hindrance to teaching, there is no need to prohibit the usage. There should be an academic reason for people not to be allowed to use the clothing they want to at higher learning institutions,” Andenæs said.

At a meeting of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions, or UHR, on June 14, the organisation criticised the introduction of a law against the covering of the face at higher education institutions, stating that education was one of the most important areas for promoting integration and trust in Norwegian society.

Chair of UHR Professor Vidar Leif Haanes said in a press release that UHR will support an alternative proposal, which, in accordance with current practice, calls for the prohibition of such clothing when it is justified for academic reasons. This view is also expressed by a majority of leaders of Norwegian higher education institutions in media commentaries.

The consultation document delves into the present legislation in education in Norway in detail, and in particular explains how the proposal does not violate the right to freedom of religion in the law or in international conventions.

It also examines the practice in the other Nordic countries and in France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and argues that there is no consensus on how clothing covering the face is handled by the law.

A discussion is held around how the practice of face-covering might stigmatise Muslim women. Norway has 148,000 citizens who are members of a Muslim religious society, according to the thinktank Minotenk, but in 2014 it estimated that fewer than 100 women in Norway use clothing covering the face.

The document also includes a chapter discussing how the use of such clothing covering the face might have a negative impact upon integration of minorities in Norway.

The ministry concludes that it is striving for “an open society where everyone can see each other’s faces”. It says the public views this as an important value for Norwegian society. “Kindergarten and educational institutions are central arenas in society where such a value should be fundamental,” the document says.

The proposal was presented at a press conference in Oslo last Monday by Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen from the Conservative Party and Acting Minister of Immigration and Integration Per Sandberg from the right-wing Progress Party.

“The law shall be effectuated at each learning institution through a set of rules and regulations,” they said.

Minister Isaksen said he is confident that there will be a majority in parliament for this legislation, since the Labour Party had earlier expressed support for it.